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Civil War songs: Dan Emmett’s legacy in Knox County

by Milo Booke

 

“Away, away, away down south in Dixie!” These lyrics come from “Dixie,” one of the most recognizable songs in American history. The song is disputably attributed to Dan Emmett, a musician and the creator of the first blackface minstrel group who also hailed from Knox County. Black minstrelsy, in which white actors painted themselves with black paint and acted out racial stereotypes, was popular during the 19th century.

Emmett was born in 1815 in Mount Vernon, and he is one of the most famous residents in the city’s history. “Dan Emmett was a rockstar,” Professor of Sociology Howard Sacks said. Sacks founded a Dan Emmett festival and is a renowned Emmett scholar. The Dan Emmett Music and Arts Festival takes place every August in Mount Vernon, and features local folk music and art. The Knox County Historical Society Museum is akin to a shrine to Emmett. Memorabilia from throughout his life blankets the walls, and numerous flyers from his concerts lay behind thick glass cases. A sign at the city limits describes Mount Vernon as the “birthplace of Dan Emmett.” “He’s a cultural icon here,” Haley Shipley ’17, a resident of Knox County, said. “There aren’t really many famous people from the area, so we hold on to the one person that we have.”

Despite Emmett’s popularity in Mount Vernon, the history of his most famous song, “Dixie,” is shrouded in controversy. “Dixie” originally made its appearance in blackface musical performances, and was written in an exaggerated black vernacular. The lyrics invoke a romanticized version of life on a slave plantation. It was also used as a Confederate battle march song during the Civil War. Despite this, the song is still widely performed and beloved in America, especially in the South. While many consider the lyrics to be racist, some in the local community believe the song captures an important aspect of United States heritage. “For the black community in Mount Vernon, the song is a source of cultural pride,” Sacks said. “They have passed on the story that the song was really written by local black folks.”

The authorship of the song has also recently been called into question. It is likely that Emmett did not write “Dixie” at all. The local Snowden family may have taught Emmett the song in the late 1850s. (The Snowden Multicultural Center is named after this family, and was built to honor their legacy in Knox County.)

Sacks claimed the song is actually a semi-biographical account of Ellen Snowden’s life as a slave on a southern plantation. “Dixie is a retelling of the experience of Ellen Cooper Snowden and her family, in slavery and freedom,” Sacks said. “What that song meant to Ellen and her family was different than when it was performed on the minstrel stage.”

Not all residents of Mount Vernon accept this alternate history of “Dixie” as fact. Treasurer of the Knox County Historical Society Janet Jacobs was not convinced of the potential influence of the Snowdens, despite an inscription on the Snowden family’s gravestone which reads, “They taught Dixie to Dan Emmett.” Jacobs described the inscription as being false. “Dan Emmett wrote Dixie,” she said. “It was impossible for the Snowdens to have anything to do with it. It’s ridiculous.”

Despite the song’s contested authorship, Sacks maintains that the question of who wrote “Dixie” is not the most pertinent issue.  “What is more important is how music moves,” Sacks said, “from black to white and back again.”